Tag Archives: financial crisis

Watering Down Banking Regulations


“IT was always the French and the Germans,” grumbles a senior financial regulator, blaming counterparts from those two countries for undermining international efforts to increase capital ratios for banks. Every time the Basel committee, a grouping of the world’s bank supervisors, neared agreement on a higher standard, he says, a phone call from the Chancellery in Berlin or the Trésor in Paris would send everyone back to the table.

Similar phone calls almost certainly inspired the committee’s decision on January 12th to water down a proposed new “leverage ratio” for banks. It had originally suggested obliging banks to hold equity (the loss-absorbing capital put up by investors) of at least 3% of assets. In theory, that standard will still apply. But the committee came up with various revisions to how the ratio is to be calculated, in effect making it less exacting.

The new rule will allow banks to offset some derivatives against one another and to exclude some assets from the calculation altogether, thus making their exposure seem smaller. Analysts at Barclays characterised it as a “substantial loosening”. Citibank called it “significant regulatory forbearance”. Shares in big European banks such as Barclays and Deutsche Bank surged to their highest level in nearly three years on the news.

Leverage ratios have their critics—even outside overleveraged banks. They contend that leverage is a crude and antiquated measure of risk compared with the practice of weighting assets by the likelihood of making losses on them, and calculating the required cushion of equity accordingly. The chances of losing money on a German government bond, the argument runs, are much smaller than they are on a car loan; but a simple leverage ratio makes no distinction between the two. As a result, leverage ratios might actually encourage banks to buy riskier assets, in the hope of increasing returns to shareholders. Officials at Germany’s central bank, for instance, have argued that a binding leverage ratio “punishes low-risk business models, and it favours high-risk businesses.

”Bankers also claim that tough leverage requirements risk stemming the flow of credit to the economy, as banks shrink their balance-sheets to comply. BNP Paribas, a French bank, says this would particularly disadvantage European banks because they do not tend to sell on as many of their home loans as American ones. The full extent of the new change is difficult to gauge, partly because there is still some uncertainty surrounding the rules. Yet a rough calculation suggests that they have been loosened just enough to allow most big European banks to pass the 3% test. Without the committee’s help as many as three-quarters of Europe’s big banks might have failed the test (see chart).

A detailed analysis by Kian Abouhossein of J.P. Morgan Cazenove, an investment bank, suggests that under the old rules big European banks may have had to raise as much as €70 billion ($95 billion) to get their leverage ratios to 3.5%, which is far enough above the minimum for comfort. Yet the new rules alone may improve big European banks’ leverage ratios by 0.2-0.5 percentage points compared with the previous ones, he reckons—enough for most to avoid raising new capital.

That does not mean banks will be able to shrug off the new leverage ratio entirely. Simon Samuels, an analyst at Barclays, expects it will prompt some European investment banks to reconsider their strategies. Some may have to cut lines of business and reduce their assets. That hints at the potency the measure could have had, if the regulators had allowed it.

Leverage ratios: Leavened, Economist,  Jan 18, 2014, t 72

Finance: the BlackRock Dominance

BlackRock headquarters

BlackRock, an investment manager, owns a stake in almost every listed company not just in America but globally. (Indeed, it is the biggest shareholder in Pearson, in turn the biggest shareholder in The Economist magazine.) Its reach extends further: to corporate bonds, sovereign debt, commodities, hedge funds and beyond. It is easily the biggest investor in the world, with $4.1 trillion of directly controlled assets (almost as much as all private-equity and hedge funds put together) and another $11 trillion it oversees through its trading platform, Aladdin.

Established in 1988 by a group of Wall Streeters led by Larry Fink, BlackRock succeeded in part by offering “passive” investment products, such as exchange-traded funds, which aim to track indices such as the S&P 500. These are cheap alternatives to traditional mutual funds, which often do more to enrich money managers than clients (though BlackRock offers plenty of those, too). The sector continues to grow fast, and BlackRock, partly through its iShares brand, is the largest competitor in an industry where scale brings benefits. Its clients, ranging from Arab sovereign-wealth funds to mom-and-pop investors, save billions in fees as a result.

The other reason for its success is its management of risk in its actively managed portfolio. Early on, for instance, it was a leader in mortgage-backed securities. But because it analysed their riskiness zipcode by zipcode, it not only avoided a bail-out in the chaos that followed the collapse of Lehman, but also advised the American government and others on how to keep the financial system ticking in the darkest days of 2008, and picked up profitable money-management units from struggling financial institutions in the aftermath of the crisis.

Compared with the many banks which are flourishing only thanks to state largesse, BlackRock’s success—based on providing value to customers and paying attention to detail—is well-deserved. Yet when taxpayers have spent billions rescuing financial institutions deemed too big to fail, a 25-year-old company that has grown so vast so quickly sets nerves jangling. American regulators are therefore thinking about designating BlackRock and some of its rivals as “systemically important”. The tag might land them with hefty regulatory requirements.

If the regulators’ concern is to avoid a repeat of the last crisis, they are barking up the wrong tree. Unlike banks, whose loans and deposits go on their balance-sheets as assets and liabilities, BlackRock is a mere manager of other people’s money. It has control over investments it holds on behalf of others—which gives it great influence—but it neither keeps the profits nor suffers the losses on them. Whereas banks tumble if their assets lose even a fraction of their value, BlackRock can pass on any shortfalls to its clients, and withstand far greater shocks. In fact, by being on hand to pick up assets cheaply from distressed sellers, an unleveraged asset manager arguably stabilises markets rather than disrupting them.

But for regulators that want not merely to prevent a repeat of the last blow-up but also to identify the sources of future systemic perils, BlackRock raises another, subtler issue, concerning not the ownership of assets but the way buying and selling decisions are made. The $15 trillion of assets managed on its Aladdin platform amount to around 7% of all the shares, bonds and loans in the world. As a result, those who oversee many of the world’s biggest pools of money are looking at the financial world, at least in part, through a lens crafted by BlackRock. Some 17,000 traders in banks, insurance companies, sovereign-wealth funds and others rely in part on BlackRock’s analytical models to guide their investing.

That is a tribute to BlackRock’s elaborate risk-management models, but it is also discomfiting. A principle of healthy markets is that a cacophony of diverse actors come to different conclusions on the price of things, based on their own idiosyncratic analyses. The value of any asset is discovered by melding all these different opinions into a single price. An ecosystem which is dominated by a single line of thinking is not healthy,

The rise of BlackRock, Ecomomist, Dec. 7, 2013, at 13

S&P as an Unfair Umpire Misleading the Public

StandardPoors Headquarters

Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Feb. 5, 2013 that the Department of Justice has filed a civil lawsuit against the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services  (pdf) alleging that S&P engaged in a scheme to defraud investors in structured financial products known as Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities (RMBS) and Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs). The lawsuit alleges that investors, many of them federally insured financial institutions, lost billions of dollars on CDOs for which S&P issued inflated ratings that misrepresented the securities’ true credit risks. The complaint also alleges that S&P falsely represented that its ratings were objective, independent, and uninfluenced by S&P’s relationships with investment banks when, in actuality, S&P’s desire for increased revenue and market share led it to favor the interests of these banks over investors.

“Put simply, this alleged conduct is egregious – and it goes to the very heart of the recent financial crisis,” said Attorney General Holder. “Today’s action is an important step forward in our ongoing efforts to investigate – and – punish the conduct that is believed to have contributed to the worst economic crisis in recent history. It is just the latest example of the critical work that the President’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force is making possible.”

Attorney General Eric Holder was joined in announcing the filing of the civil complaint by Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division Stuart F. Delery, and U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California André Birotte Jr. Also joining the Department of Justice in making this announcement were the attorneys general from California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Iowa and Mississippi, who have filed or will file civil fraud lawsuits against S&P alleging similar misconduct in the rating of structured financial products. Additional state attorneys general are expected to make similar filings today.

“Many investors, financial analysts and the general public expected S&P to be a fair and impartial umpire in issuing credit ratings, but the evidence we have uncovered tells a different story,” said Acting Associate Attorney General West. “Our investigation revealed that, despite their representations to the contrary, S&P’s concerns about market share, revenues and profits drove them to issue inflated ratings, thereby misleading the public and defrauding investors. In so doing, we believe that S&P played an important role in helping to bring our economy to the brink of collapse.”

Today’s action was filed in the Central District of California, home to the now defunct Western Federal Corporate Credit Union (WesCorp), which was the largest corporate credit union in the country. Following the 2008 financial crisis, WesCorp collapsed after suffering massive losses on RMBS and CDOs rated by S&P.  “Significant harm was caused by S&P’s alleged conduct in the Central District of California,” said U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California Birotte. “Across the seven counties in my district, we had huge numbers of homeowners who took out subprime mortgage loans, many of which were made by some of the country’s most aggressive lenders only because they later could be securitized into debt instruments that were given flawed ‘AAA’ ratings by S&P. This led to an untold number of foreclosures in my district. In addition, institutional investors located in my district, such as WesCorp, suffered massive losses after putting billions of dollars into RMBS and CDOs that received flawed and inflated ratings from S&P.”

The complaint, which names McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. and its subsidiary, Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC (collectively S&P) as defendants, seeks civil penalties under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (FIRREA) based on three forms of alleged fraud by S&P: (1) mail fraud affecting federally insured financial institutions in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1341; (2) wire fraud affecting federally insured financial institutions in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1343; and (3) financial institution fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1344. FIRREA authorizes the Attorney General to seek civil penalties up to the amount of the losses suffered as a result of the alleged violations. To date, the government has identified more than $5 billion in losses suffered by federally insured financial institutions in connection with the failure of CDOs rated by S&P from March to October 2007.  “The fraud underpinning the crisis took many different forms, and for that reason, so must our response,” said Stuart F. Delery, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Department’s Civil Division. “As today’s filing demonstrates, the Department of Justice is committed to using every available legal tool to bring to justice those responsible for the financial crisis.”

According to the complaint, S&P publicly represented that its ratings of RMBS and CDOs were objective, independent and uninfluenced by the potential conflict of interest posed by S&P being selected to rate securities by the investment banks that sold those securities. Contrary to these representations, from 2004 to 2007, the government alleges, S&P was so concerned with the possibility of losing market share and profits that it limited, adjusted and delayed updates to the ratings criteria and analytical models it used to assess the credit risks posed by RMBS and CDOs. According to the complaint, S&P weakened those criteria and models from what S&P’s own analysts believed was necessary to make them more accurate. The complaint also alleges that, from at least March to October 2007, and because of this same desire to increase market share and profits, S&P issued inflated ratings on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of CDOs. At the time, according to the allegations in the complaint, S&P knew that the quality of non-prime RMBS was severely impaired, and that the ratings on those mortgage bonds would not hold. The government alleges that S&P failed to account for this impairment in the CDO ratings it was assigning on a daily basis. As a result, nearly every CDO rated by S&P during this time period failed, causing investors to lose billions of dollars.

The underlying federal investigation, code-named “Alchemy,” that led to the filing of this complaint was initiated in November 2009 in connection with the President’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force.

Department of Justice Sues Standard & Poor’s for Fraud in Rating Mortgage-Backed Securities in the Years Leading Up to the Financial Crisis, Department of Justice Press Release, Feb. 5, 2013

See also the Ruling of Australian Court